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Larry Grenadier, born in San Francisco and raised in Burlingame, is a renowned jazz bassist at the top of his game.
Grenadier has collaborated with a long list of musical legends such as Betty Carter, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny, and Brad Mehldau. Grenadier is a member of a quartet called Hudson, as well as a trio named Fly, which has released three critically acclaimed albums.
And he keeps taking creative risks.
ECM Records recently released “The Gleaners,” his first solo album. Grenadier wrote more than half of the 12-song record, on which he mixed original compositions with tunes by George Gershwin, John Coltrane, and others. One of the album’s tunes was written by his wife, singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin. “The Gleaners” has been well-received by jazz critics. Grenadier has been praised for fusing his “direct and powerful” sound with a wide musical range that allows him to produce both “spritzed, lively rhythms or a luminous, slow immersion,” according to The New York Times.
Grenadier, 53, will return to the Bay Area later this year. He’s scheduled to perform at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco on Oct. 25, followed by another concert in San Jose on Oct. 26. You can find tickets online at www.LarryGrenadier.com. He’s also scheduled to play on July 4 at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. For more info, visit www.montrealjazzfest.com.
Bay City News recently chatted with Grenadier, who shared his thoughts on the creative risks involved with producing his first solo album, and how the Bay Area’s rich talent of musicians influenced him in the early years of his successful career. The following Q&A based on that conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Did growing up in the Bay Area influence you as a musician?
Absolutely. Some people don’t know how vibrant the jazz scene was at the time, but it was super vibrant. There were an amazing amount of master musicians living there in the 1970s and 1980s. The musicians and the venues — Kimball’s, Yoshi’s, Great American Music Hall, the Keystone, the Greek Theatre, among others — it really rivaled any other city, besides New York. I would not have had the same opportunities if I had been somewhere else at the time. I feel really fortunate to have grown up there in the Bay. People like (the late concert promoter) Bill Graham had the idea of a genre-less way of presenting music, and the audiences were open to new styles. And there were some amazing local musicians, like drummer Tony Williams and Stan Getz (a renowned saxophonist who taught at Stanford for part of the 1980s).
For electric bass, the Bay Area was an amazing place. People like Rocco Prestia of Tower of Power, Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, Paul Jackson of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and Bobby Vega. They had this trendsetting new way of thinking about the music that’s specific to the Bay Area, and it continues to affect music today. That music really changed everything.
How did growing up in a musical family affect your growth?
My father and oldest brother played trumpet, and my middle brother played guitar. My dad played before we were born. When you’re a certain age, you play an instrument — that was a natural go-to in our family. I played trumpet at first. I learned how to read music, and how to play in a band. I learned that it was an ensemble thing, that it was about getting together with brothers and friends. For us, music always meant playing with people and seeing how the connection happens, the interpersonal.
What made you so impassioned about music at such a young age?
I was doing gigs, even when I played electric bass, by the time I was 15. I was playing real gigs, just trying to get better each time I played. I was good enough to give it a go, I learned so much from playing with people much better than me. I did it because I liked doing it. I always liked practicing, because it was fun to play with people and learn the tunes. It was just normal and fun to me, listening to records and playing. I really didn’t give it a second thought. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be something I’d do for the rest of my life. It was so natural. It helps to be good, true. You get encouraged, and little things go a long way. I benefitted from a very fortunate set of circumstances.
What’s the difference between playing in a trio (Fly) and a quartet (Hudson)? And did you prefer one over the other?
For me, it’s not the number of people or the instruments, it’s who is playing, and how those personalities affect how I play. It’s really about the people. There are issues that come up with smaller or larger bands, but it’s really about those people playing. Musically, it’s similar to how I play inside the ensemble, because the drummer and bass are the same in both bands, it calls on the same resources that I give them.
Does it come down to chemistry among bandmates?
Exactly. That’s what I learned from playing early on, that there was a lightness and freedom to it. With these master musicians, it was about the communication. At the highest talent level, it’s about communicating with each other. It’s exciting to be around. They were really open, these older musicians I played with. There wasn’t a lot of verbalizing.
The communication was really through the music itself, a nonverbal way of teaching. For music and any art, doing it that way gets you to the source of the material more quickly.
You’ve collaborated with so many greats. What’s the key to becoming a good collaborator?
Basic things: Listening. Empathy. Showing up on time. Showering before the gig. (laughs) You should serve the whole sound of the music and try not to put yourself on top of it. Put yourself on the musical level of the dialogue. As a bass player, it kind of has to be that way. We thrive on that aspect of music: the communication thing. If you get to that quickly, there’s no looking back. It’s about communicating with the people you’re playing with.
What led you to release a solo album?
It’s not something I thought about doing until I talked to Manfred Eicher, a producer who started ECM Records. He mentioned the idea of doing a solo album and I found it intriguing. I hadn’t done my own solo album, and it rang true at that moment.
Once we started, I said, “Oh, shit, what do we do know?” There was the challenge of presenting it, along with the ideas of sounds, space, melody, colors, texture — all the things that come with good music.
I thought, “How do I do it myself and still get to the essence of the music?” It’s pretty much one voice, and that posed certain puzzles about how to present it. The experience pushed me as a composer and a musician, to get in the studio by myself and react to the sound of the bass and the music. I’d probably never do it again. But now I’ll do it live, I’m doing it by myself on stage.
Has doing it solo been scary for a longtime collaborator like yourself?
A little bit. My first gig was in New York and it was a little weird, a little off-putting. I was like, “Wow!” It throws you off-balance. But once you get used to it, it can be freeing. It can be fun. I can relax with it now.
Who were your musical influences?
So many. It’s a huge list. The same names as any bass player will say. People who had a unique sound of bass: Jaco Pastorius, Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, and Ray Brown. I saw Brown when I was very young. There are a lot of electric bass players, for sure.
You’ve collaborated with your wife Rebecca Martin. Is it difficult to combine a marriage with your music?
I think it really fits beautifully. Maybe music is different (than other professions) because it’s so up in the air, it’s not concrete. Just playing music at home is very natural. Taking it onstage or in the studio is a continuation of it. You share a deep understanding of things. I guess it could be hard but for us it’s not. It’s a beautiful way to share our passion and ideals. My wife is very understanding about me being on the road, for example.
A “Gleaner” is a farmhand who does a very specific job involving physical labor. What is the meaning of naming your album “The Gleaner”?
It represents and sums up things I thought about when I wrote it. I’d seen a French documentary by Agnes Varda called The Gleaner. And, given the times we’re living in, the movie resonated with me. It made me think about how I played music, how piecemeal it is.
Also, there’s a (19th-century French) painting called “The Gleaners.” As musicians, we glean information that’s tossed our way. Sometimes, you just have to pick it up and use it. We continue to glean as we get older. We continue to mine those things that people tossed away, and we continue to learn. Songwriting is about feelings. It’s about what I’m thinking about when I’m writing the tune, what I’m reading, living, and writing. That’s what it is, it’s not much more than that.
Did moving to New York City have a big effect on you?
Yes. When I moved to New York, a lot of my biggest influences were my peers. There’s a certain energy in New York. The amount of great music happening creates a certain energy, even if you don’t spend all your life here. It’s something that you can take with you and use for the rest of your life.
Now you live in the New York’s Hudson Valley, north of the city. Does it inspire you as a musician?
Absolutely. I could get inspiration from somewhere else, too, but there’s a unique beauty there. It’s a comfortable part of New York. The history of music and art up this way, for good reason, has inspiration here. It’s far enough away from the city but close enough, too. When I’m home after touring it’s a nice place to refuel.
When you’re back in San Francisco, where do you like to go?
I’ll go to the Mission District for a good taco, really good authentic Mexican food, which is something you can’t get here in New York. I love going to the ocean, I love going to Golden Gate Park, and I always go to City Lights bookstore in North Beach.